Harley-Davidson sign
Andrew B. Wilson

In its own words, the Trump Organization is “the world’s only global luxury real estate super-brand,” with five- and six-star hotels bearing the Trump name in major cities around the globe. These hotels share a core brand philosophy of “Live life without boundaries.”

So why is President Donald Trump taking Harley-Davidson—another U.S.-based global super-brand—to task?

A day after the company announced plans to serve the European market with motorcycles built in Europe, the president thundered: “A Harley-Davidson should never be built in another country—never!” He accused the company of hoisting the “white flag” of surrender and predicted “If they move, watch, it will be the beginning of the end.”

Harley-Davidson, Inc., made its announcement after the European Union raised tariffs on U.S.-made motorcycles by 25 percent—in retaliation to the 25 percent tariff on European exports of steel to the U.S. imposed by the Trump administration. Noting that the higher EU tariff would add approximately $2,200 to the average cost of a motorcycle exported from the U.S. to Europe, the company said:

Increasing international production to alleviate the EU tariff burden is not the company’s preference, but it represents the only sustainable option. Europe is a critical market for Harley-Davidson. In 2017, nearly 40,000 riders bought new Harley-Davidson motorcycles in Europe, and revenue generated from the EU countries is second only to the U.S.

The president said that he had “chided” Harley-Davidson executives on an earlier occasion for moving production to India as a way around high motorcycle tariffs in that country. But is it reasonable to expect a profit-seeking enterprise to keep all production and employment in the U.S., regardless of the cost in lost sales, profit, and overall competitiveness?

Certainly, the Trump Organization has not followed such a policy. Under licensing or other arrangements, it has fancy hotels bearing the Trump name in four different cities in India (Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, and Kolkata). Apart from Chicago, however, the Trump Organization has no luxurious hotels anywhere in the great American heartland. Why not?

Presumably, it made more sense from a business perspective to build hotels for the super-rich in India—though other cities in the American Midwest would have welcomed the same investment.

The president faulted Harley-Davidson for not being more “patient”—suggesting that his deliberately provocative approach to trade negotiations would force other nations to bend to his will for fear of losing access to the rich U.S. marketplace. As he said a couple of months ago— “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

But as Joe Haslag, the chief economist for the Show-Me Institute, notes, the president is playing “a very dangerous game,” because “the size, scale, and scope of the products that we are now talking about in increasingly acrimonious trade negotiations are staggering—a potentially U.S.-GDP-changing event.”

A grand strategy? Maybe, but early results are not promising. Mid Continent Nail in Poplar Bluff says its orders have dropped in half as a result of having to raise prices to make up for the higher cost of importing steel from Mexico. It has laid off 60 workers and says it may have to dismiss all of its 440 remaining workers by Labor Day.

In 2017, the Trump administration withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership—an agreement that would have reduced tariffs in Asian markets on motorcycles made in the U.S. That seems to have prompted Harley-Davidson’s earlier decision to build a manufacturing plant in Thailand. It may also have been a factor in the company’s decision to close its Kansas City manufacturing facility by 2019.

What caused the world-famous company with the “HOG” stock exchange symbol to make those choices? Surely it was rising tariffs on manufactured goods—a problem that does not exist in the luxury hotel business.

About the Author

Andrew Wilson
Senior Fellow

A former foreign correspondent who spent four years in the Middle East and served as Business Week’s London bureau chief during Margaret Thatcher’s first two terms as Britain’s prime minister, Andrew is a regular contributor to leading national publications, including the American Spectator, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal.